Quick, try to name as many Cubs players as you can outside of Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, and Anthony Rizzo. And no, Alfonso Soriano, Matt Garza and Carlos Marmol don’t count.
Have trouble? Yeah, thought so.
That’s because Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been actively trading away players to build for the future like they promised when they arrived to Chicago in October 2011.
Epstein and Hoyer inherited a mess from the Jim Hendry era, and the Cubs first season under their watch was ugly, to put it mildly. The team went 61-101, its worst season since 1963.
The club has shown noticeable improvement this season. At 48-55, they’re locked in 4th place in the NL Central, but very easily could be .500. Considering they were 41-58 at this time a year ago, any improvement is considered progress.
But what fans have gotten most excited about is the future–heck, they have been for over the last century. Epstein was finally able to unload Soriano’s enormous contract, even if they’re still paying most of it for the next season and a half. And Matt Garza was traded to the Texas Rangers for three top minor league prospects.
While none of the Cubs’ top prospects are expected to land in the majors until 2015, their current roster has done enough become watchable. Junior Lake has shown flashes of his potential since being called up from Triple-A Iowa, and rookie reliever Pedro Strop has been untouchable.
Almost untouchable, that is.
On the road against the defending champion Giants, Strop loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the 8th inning. As had happened all too often earlier this season, it looked like a solid start by Chris Rusin would go up in flames. Fortunately for Strop, he retired the next three batters thanks to strong defense from the infield.
After retiring Hunter Pence for the final out, Strop displayed the kind of emotion that only retiring a bases-loaded jam could bring. Going back to the dugout, he slapped hands with catcher Wellington Castillo and the rest of his teammates. The Cubs had the momentum that had been missing most of the night.
The Cubs were able to carry the momentum into the ninth when Nate Schierholtz continued his recent power surge and hit a towering solo blast into right field. A 1-0 lead hardly seemed safe, and it wasn’t, but it was all the Cubs needed .
Closer Kevin Gregg again survived a shaky ninth by allowing the Giants to load the bases, but Tony Abreu ground into a game-ending double play. Other Cubs teams would have broken, but this team showed that it is on its way by completing a three-game sweep on Sunday.
Sustaining their emotion will be important, because Theo and Jed are likely still not done dealing. Schierholtz is one the players looking to be moved along with Gregg, David DeJesus and James Russell. Trade rumors have even emerged about Jeff Samardzija.
“If you look at the really big picture and just how much young talent this organization has brought in over the last couple of month, we’ve brought in a couple dozen really interesting prospects,” Epstein said. “The next step is we have to develop the players.”
The plan to buy young talent has clearly made a difference, but eventually the focus will shift to developing those players and adding via free agency.
“We will acquire impact players through free agency,” he said. “We’re just not going to build our plans around that.”
Theo and Jed clearly have a well-thought plan set in place, and it’s worked for the first year and a half. Since they’re not focused on winning now, the organization is in a perfect spot. Eventually, however, it will have to translate into wins.